Thursday night, in the opening game of the season, the Denver Broncos repeatedly smashed into Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, last season’s most valuable player. On the final drive, with the Panthers desperately marching for a game-tying field goal, Newton scrambled and absorbed a chilling hit from safety Darian Stewart, the crown of Stewart’s helmet crashing into Newton’s helmet.
Newton fell to the turf, his body limp for a moment, his facemask in the grass. When he rose, his eyes appear glassy, his expression dazed. The NFL mandates teams remove players who might have suffered a concussion. At each game, a team of independent medical personnel — including a certified athletic trainer watching from high above the field with the power to the stop the game — is charged with enforcing the NFL’s concussion protocol.
In the dying minutes of a thrilling game, with the MVP lying on the turf, here is what those responsible for Newton’s health did: Nothing.
No one watching from the stands or on television could determine whether Newton suffered a concussion. Neither could the Panthers or any of the myriad medical personnel on the sideline. But common sense would dictate that a concussion is possible when a 200-pound safety projects his helmet at full speed into Newton’s. That scenario is exactly why the concussion protocol was put in place.
While the hit looked dangerous, the NFL believes the system worked.
“There was communication between medical personnel on the Carolina sideline, including the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, and the two independent certified athletic trainer spotters in the booth,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email Friday morning. “During stoppage in play while on-field officials were in the process of administrating penalties, the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant and team physician requested video from the spotters and reviewed the play. They concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game.”
If the NFL’s concussion protocol was taken seriously, doctors would not have relied on instant replay for a diagnosis. Instead, Newton would have been pulled from the game and examined. That might have resulted in a different and perhaps louder outcry than what the NFL faced Friday morning. It’s sometimes hard to do the right thing, but in this case it would be easy to defend.
Teams and officials have been conditioned to expect no accountability for breaches of the concussion protocol. Two years ago, Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller wobbled back onto the field in the dying moments of a Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game after taking vicious blows to the head, and the NFL never said a peep.
Last year, St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum displayed obvious signs of a concussion during a last-minute drive, but was sent back in. The NFL Players Association called for discipline. The NFL held a conference call to remind teams of the protocol, reviewed the incident and held no one accountable. During the offseason, it instituted harsher penalties for ignoring the rules. Will those be meted out this season?
In the chaos of a last-minute drive, it can be difficult to identify and pull a potentially concussed player, even with the purest intentions. But concussion protocol — put in place to protect players from brain damage that could impact the rest of their lives — is still not regarded as more important than the game itself, and by its inaction, the NFL is making its priorities clear.
Concussion protocol allows the NFL to claim it is trying to prevent brain injuries, but the league’s lack of action after the hit on Newton demonstrates, once again, that it is an empty policy that only works when it doesn’t interfere with the game. On Thursday night, the system failed the NFL’s best player.